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Attorney General

Volume 643: debated on Thursday 21 June 2018

The Attorney General was asked—

Forced Marriages

1. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for forced marriages. (905990)

2. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for forced marriages. (905991)

The Crown Prosecution Service takes forced marriage very seriously and the prosecution of these crimes remains a priority. In May of this year the CPS secured the first two convictions under the specific offence of forced marriage in England. These successful prosecutions send a clear message that forced marriage is unacceptable and that those responsible will be prosecuted.

We all know that women are much more likely to be the victims of forced marriage than men, but the Daily Mail reported yesterday that police in south Yorkshire had made history by issuing the first ever order to protect a male victim of forced marriage. What is the Solicitor General doing to ensure that the CPS is also aware of male victims of forced marriage?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue, and I am happy to tell him that the legal guidance and protocol used by the CPS have been updated to include the experiences of male victims, to help challenge myths and stereotypes and provide details of any support services for them. Indeed, a section on male victims was included in the forced marriage training session held in December of last year, which is now being spread locally throughout CPS areas by forced marriage leads.

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the challenge facing prosecutors because these prosecutions are among the most complex referred to the CPS. They involve victims being hurt and coerced by members of their own families and communities, and therefore victims coming forward is a confidence issue. But the joint CPS and police forced marriage focus group is working hard to address the challenges faced when prosecuting these crimes.

University of Nottingham research shows that victims of forced marriage quite often have learning difficulties. What special steps are the Government taking to support those very vulnerable victims?

The hon. Lady is right to acknowledge that among the complexities and the questions of confidence is the exploitation of a vulnerability or a particular disability, and that is very much part of the process that I outlined in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). However, the intervention of the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) is helpful, and I will ensure that that focus is re-emphasised by the CPS.

Will the Attorney General outline what support is given to the victims of attempted forced marriage to provide them with a new life and a fresh start? Is the CPS equipped to signpost victims to such funding, rather than just moving on after the prosecution?

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the aftermath of a prosecution, and work is ongoing between the CPS and the police not just to signpost, but to provide active support for victims after their horrific experiences.

Two prosecutions does not sound like much. What is the Solicitor General’s estimate of the number of forced marriages in the UK each year?

With respect, it is difficult for me to estimate. Being realistic, prosecutions are not reflecting the number of forced marriages that exist, but we saw an increase in convictions between 2011-12 and last year from 23 to 32. We also now have over 1,500 forced marriage protection orders, which are designed to prevent the crime from taking place at all.

Public Legal Education

I have launched a new public legal education panel formed of leading organisations that promote the importance of teaching people about the law and their basic civil and criminal rights. As part of that, I am able to work closely with those involved in PLE, supporting initiatives to increase its profile and to reach more members of the public.

I thank the Solicitor General for that answer, but what more can be done to inspire young people in Willenhall, Bloxwich and Walsall North to pursue a career in the legal profession?

I commend my hon. Friend for his interest in this subject and his passion for spreading opportunity in his constituency. My advice to him and to legal practitioners in the Walsall and Bloxwich area is that they should get into and work with our schools and take part in “lawyers in schools” sessions, which not only help to deliver PLE, but inspire young people into a future legal career.

I agree with the Solicitor General that public legal education is important, so how would he explain to the public what has gone wrong with prosecution disclosure? Who is responsible?

The hon. Lady makes a pertinent point. She will know that the Attorney General and I launched a review late last year ahead of some of the latest stories that have hit the headlines about the importance of disclosure. It has been a long-term issue, involving both the CPS and, notably, the police, but we are working closely to update and revise the guidelines to tackle the issues with which she and I are very familiar.

In Scotland, public legal education begins at school, because human rights are part of the curriculum for excellence, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently heard evidence that that is part of the reason for Scotland’s more positive public discourse about human rights. Has the Solicitor General had any discussions with his counterparts in the Department for Education about emulating Scotland’s education example south of the border?

Once again, I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for raising an interesting dimension. I have not had those conversations, but I certainly want to. The curriculum in England and Wales—England in particular—already includes citizenship, of which PLE can be a part, but I will take on board her observations. I am grateful.

Public legal education is important for confidence in our criminal justice system, but failures in disclosure clearly undermine that confidence. Of the 3,637 cases that have been reviewed, disclosure concerns have been found in 47. How confident is the Solicitor General that there are not disclosure concerns in tens of further cases?

With respect, work has already exposed several deficiencies, but it would be an idle claim for me to suggest that that would be the sum total of it, because we are looking at a particular type of offence. My Department and the Attorney General’s Office have been ahead of the curve on this, and it has been our priority for some time to tackle what I and the Attorney General understand from our days at the criminal Bar as a long-term issue.

The Solicitor General talks about being ahead of the curve but, of course, there were warnings about disclosure two years ago. In July 2017, the “Making it Fair” report by the CPS inspectorate and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that police scheduling was “routinely poor” and that there were failures to manage ongoing disclosure. Although I appreciate that action is being taken, is it not time that action was absolutely urgent?

We do appreciate the urgency, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for referring to that important inspectorate report. I remind him that the Attorney General and I asked the inspectorates to undertake that work, which has allowed a clear evidential basis for action to be taken now. It is urgent and we are getting on with it.

Child Sexual Exploitation

4. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for child sexual exploitation. (905993)

Tackling child sexual exploitation is a priority for the CPS. Specialist lawyers with bespoke training continue to work closely with the police in order to bring stronger cases, and we prosecute those responsible for the sexual exploitation of children where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so.

The Solicitor General will be aware of a horrific case I have been raising in this place of a 13-year-old victim of a grooming gang. Multiple perpetrators were arrested but were not charged. Will he confirm it is his Department that is reviewing the case? When does he expect to be able to comment on it?

I commend my hon. Friend for her commitment to this vital issue, not just for her constituents but for the country at large. As she knows, it is an extremely complex and sensitive case. The CPS is looking at the matter, and the Attorney General and I are the Ministers who answer for that independent organisation. The CPS is taking the time to investigate the case fully, and then the Home Office will respond.

I know my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) has been in touch with the Home Office and is due to meet my right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary, as soon as possible. I am sure that constructive engagement will continue.

The Spicer report on the sexual exploitation of girls and young women in Newcastle made a number of recommendations for the Solicitor General’s Department. The report has yet to receive a response, particularly one that recognises the plight of young women. In my Adjournment debate last week, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins) committed to a response. Will the Solicitor General do the same?

Cyber-space: International Law

5. What the Government’s policy is on the role of international law in relation to cyber-space. (905994)

Cyber-space is an integral part of the rules-based international order, and there must be boundaries of acceptable state behaviour in cyber-space, just as there are everywhere else. In my speech on this subject at Chatham House on 23 May, I underlined that hostile actors cannot take action by cyber means without consequence, both in peacetime and in times of conflict.

Nation states can mount cyber-attacks under the cover of non-state actors to escape censure. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if that happens, they should still be censured and subject to international law?

I can confirm that, and my hon. Friend and the House will know that, where it is possible and appropriate to attribute these cyber-attacks to nation states, that is exactly what we do. He and others will recall the attack on, among others, a number of NHS institutions, which we were able to attribute to the North Koreans. We have done so again in relation to the Russians, and that is entirely right because nation states should be held to account for what they do.

The World Economic Forum has listed cyber-attacks as the third greatest threat to global stability. Given that there are no borders in cyber-space, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we need to work to build international consensus on how international law is applied to cyber-space?

Yes, I do agree. We should recognise the progress that has been made, difficult though it is. In 2015, 20 nation states agreed that the provisions of the UN charter should apply in cyber-space. Included among those 20 nation states were Russia and China, so we have been able to make some progress. In the end, every nation state takes responsibility for its own actions, and it is right that the UK gives leadership where it can.

It has been accepted by the NATO Secretary-General that cyber-attacks can, of themselves, trigger the collective defence provisions within article 5. What is less clear is the nature and extent of such a cyber-attack that would cross that crucial threshold. Given the potential repercussions, do we not need clarity on this as a matter of urgency?

We do, and my speech was intended to deliver at least some of that clarity. My hon. Friend is entirely right, and I believe it has now been established that the provisions of the UN charter that mean states are entitled to defend themselves from armed attack also apply in cyber-space. If a cyber-attack is essentially equivalent to an armed attack in its effects, it seems to me appropriate that it should be treated as such. This country is entitled to respond by cyber means, or by other means that are necessary and proportionate.

Tackling Economic Crime

The SFO is a key player in the response to economic crime and continues to operate independently, investigating and prosecuting some of the most serious and complex economic crime. I was pleased to announce earlier this month my appointment of its next director, Lisa Osofsky, who will shortly join the SFO to lead the organisation in its vital task.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that, despite the availability of deferred prosecution agreements, the SFO will still move directly to prosecute those involved in high-level economic crime, where it is appropriate to do so?

Yes. Deferred prosecution agreements are a useful tool for the SFO, and they should be used where appropriate and where the corporate entity in question has co-operated fully with the investigation, but it remains the case that in the majority of the SFO’s case load it proceeds to prosecution where that is appropriate and the evidence suggests it is the way forward.

The Attorney General knows that all of us want a really effective SFO, but we know that without the right resources it leans too heavily on big accountancy firms. There have been rumours recently of a link with a whistleblower that are interesting and very worrying indeed, so will he look into this?

If the hon. Gentleman gives me details of the case he has in mind, of course I will look into it. He will know that the SFO receives its funding in core budget and in blockbuster funding to deal with those extra-large cases that need additional funding. There has never been an occasion, and I hope there never will be, when the SFO has not been able to proceed for reasons of resources—that should remain the case.

I was glad to hear the Attorney General confirm that the SFO will continue to operate independently. What specific measures have been put in place to ensure that the new tasking power given to the National Crime Agency in relation to economic crime does not compromise either operational independence or the independence of the decision making on whether or not to bring prosecutions?

I can say three things to my hon. Friend on that. First, both the SFO and the NCA believe this power will hardly ever be used. Secondly, in order for it to be used both my consent and that of the Home Secretary are required. Thirdly, it seems to us that this is sensible co-ordination in the fight against economic crime, but it will not affect the opportunity that the SFO will continue to have to investigate and, of course, to prosecute its own cases. This affects only the opportunity to investigate; it does not affect making decisions on prosecution.

The Attorney General may be aware of correspondence I have been having with the Solicitor General about my constituent Alun Richards. There is a growing campaign across the House in relation to banking fraud, specifically in relation to Lloyds, rather than just the Royal Bank of Scotland. The SFO will not investigate. I understand it is independent but may I urge the Attorney General to give the organisation more teeth, in order to ensure that our constituents can get the money back, having been able to get the proof to say it was taken?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I suspect he knows by now from that correspondence, the issue here is primarily that the SFO deals with a certain level of economic crime. It is not that economic crime that does not fall within that threshold level is not sensibly investigated and prosecuted by others. He will recognise that other agencies also investigate and prosecute economic crime, and we will want to make sure that they are properly resourced to do so. I hope that we will be able to find a satisfactory solution through those means.

Female Genital Mutilation

8. What steps the CPS is taking to improve the rate of prosecution of people responsible for female genital mutilation. (905999)

FGM is a crime and it is child abuse. The CPS has introduced a series of measures to improve the prosecution of these cases, including appointing a lead FGM prosecutor in each CPS area.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his reply. The French have had some success in arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning perpetrators of FGM. When are we going to bring justice for the British victims and have a serious deterrent for this abhorrent crime?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point entirely, and he will understand the frustration felt in the CPS and elsewhere at the fact that those cases that have been brought to court have not resulted in conviction. He will recognise that every case is different and must be judged on its merits. As was said earlier, these cases are often difficult to prosecute. It is worth pointing out that we do not just respond to this behaviour by prosecution; there are also very important FGM prevention orders—civil orders that have criminal consequences if they are breached—and we have seen more than 200 of those since they were introduced in 2015.

The Attorney General speaks of prevention; he may know that my constituent, Lola Ilesanmi, is still threatened with deportation, and her daughter has been threatened with FGM at the hands of Lola’s violent ex-partner if she returns to Nigeria. What is the Attorney General doing to work with the Home Secretary to prevent deportations, to prevent FGM and to prevent women and children from suffering from or being threatened by this abhorrent crime?

I hope the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on the individual case that she raises and its immigration consequences, but I can tell her that it is open to courts that are persuaded to implement a civil prevention order to make travel requirements part of that order. There is that safeguard, but I am afraid I cannot give her a clear answer in respect of her constituency case, which I know she will raise with the Home Office.